The Rochester Review, University of Rochester, Rochester, New York, USA
Maria Schneider is a woman who's making waves in the male enclave of jazz--but she doesn't want you to think of her that way.
"It should say in my contract that there will be no categorization of me as a woman," jokes the Manhattan conductor and composer, adding that she's always surprised to be highlighted as a woman, even in a field still dominated by men.
Gender notwithstanding, nobody seems to be disputing the superior quality of Schneider's work. Last year, no less an authority than The Jazz Report termed her "creative and colorful" and her compositions "exquisite."
"Schneider is quite simply the most innovative young composer-arranger-conductor on the big band scene today," the report declared of the native of Windom, Minnesota, a town of 4,000, with no music store.
"She's one of the current giants in the field," agrees Fred Sturm, head of ESM's jazz program.
For four years now, Schneider has led her own 17-member big band. (Sturm says the mere fact that she's been able to hold a group together in New York is in itself an amazing feat.) Her Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra performs every Monday night at the Greenwich Village jazz club Visiones.
"Real leaders, especially of large ensembles, are so rare these past years as to be a novelty," says her teacher (under a 1985 NEA grant) New York jazz artist Bob Brookmeyer. "The so-called 'big band' has been fading since the 1970s. Reason--no composers who can also organize, rehearse, conduct, and perform convincingly in public. To know a woman who can do all of these things so well is a double pleasure."
Schneider says the regular performances at Visiones have made the ensemble into an incredibly close-knit and supportive group. "Every week, everybody in the band gets that dose of love from everyone else," she says. "Music can do that. You can make what's important in the music happen--not just the notes, but the feeling behind the notes."
The weekly gigs also mean that everything Schneider writes gets played, with the exposure frequently leading to commissions and subsidies. In recent years, she's earned an invitation to conduct the Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra, a commission from the Monterey Jazz Festival, and the opportunity to lead orchestras at the JVC Jazz Festival. She's having even better luck abroad, taking her music widely overseas. In 1997 alone, Schneider received commissions from the Orchestre National de Jazz in Paris, Copenhagen's Danish Radio Orchestra, and the Metropole Orchestra in Holland.
This two-time Grammy nominee has also found time to record two albums as a band leader--Evanescence in 1994 and Coming About in 1996, both on the Enja label.
But, for all these rewards, composing is so excruciating for Schneider that, as she confided to a Down Beat reporter, she usually cries tears of frustration and self-doubt when she first hears one of her compositions performed.
"All I can think of after a piece is first performed is the pain of the process--the bumpy ride of putting it together," she said. "I can't feel good about it. Eventually, though, when I can get some distance, I can look at it with its own personality and become a friend to it."
Despite the pain, she concedes that the relentless pace she chooses to follow--days spent composing from breakfast right though the afternoon, phone confined to another room--is probably in the best interest of her music.
"I want to find myself through my music," she says. "I want to make sure that I'm always being honest with myself and that I'm close enough to myself to know what that honesty even is. I think the world is starved for uniqueness and honesty in music and in art."
Schneider finds some of her richest paybacks in her music's resonance with audiences. She remembers a music festival in Europe last summer: "The band played so beautifully, the sound system was just stunningly good, and the audience was so supportive, so warm. I'd never experienced anything like that--such a huge audience being so completely there," she says. "Afterward the promoter told me that he found several people around him crying.
"There was just this complete feeling about the whole thing. I just looked around me and felt so grateful that we were able to do something like this in music, in life."
The story of Maria Schneider, acclaimed jazz composer, sounds strikingly similar to the story of Maria Schneider, Eastman graduate student.
"She wasn't incredibly prolific, but there was definitely something to her work," says Paul Ferguson '86E (MM), now director of the jazz program at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. While she wasn't the kind of student to try to dazzle her peers, Ferguson recalls that there was something extraordinary about the works she produced at Eastman. "She seemed more in touch with her subconscious than many of us," he suggests.
Yet Schneider suffered from artistic insecurity even way back when. "In jazz composition class, she fretted as much as anyone over the assignments," Ferguson remembers. Beneath her obvious uneasiness, Ferguson saw glints of determination. His take on her accomplishments: "I think the combination of artistic insecurity and gritty self-confidence drove her risky move to New York City and has allowed her to surmount incredible odds to become successful."
Rochester Review--Volume 60 Number 2--Winter 1997-98